Sunday, April 21, 2013

Saskia Sassen on drones over there, total surveillance over here


My friend Saskia Sassen sent me her forceful piece from Al-Jazeera on the dissolution of the liberal state - one somewhat checked by the Bill of Rights and limitations on government spying on citizens - and the emergence of a depraved national surveillance state, the counterpart of drones. There are some 10,000 buildings mainly in Washington devoted to surveillance, and the adoption by states and cities of small drones to spy on people in their homes from high above - fueled by the lobbyists and money of the drone manufacturers - proceeds apace.

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I met Saskia last year at an OccupyDenver gathering during the American Sociology Association meetings. For Occupy, she gave a brilliant talk on the international aspects of popular democracy or, as she puts it strikingly, the "global street." See here. Occupy, Arab spring, the indignados in Spain and the working class/democratic protests in Greece are all part of a creative movement for democracy, as honorable and decent as the changes in the elite are unseemly and corrupt.

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I have written on the link between Carl Schmitt - "he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception," Leo Strauss affirming the "principles of the Right - fascist, authoritarian, imperial" when he was pro-Hitler in 1933, and the emergence in the United States, birthed by the neo-cons who were often students of Strauss, of anti-democratic "commander in chief power." See here, here, here, here and here.

That this authoritarian idea - a theme song for the Nazis - should trump Montesquieu's and the constitution's liberty-defending balance and separation of powers is, however a result of a dialectic. The war complex (the military-industrial-Congressional-media-intelligence-subordinates in other militaries dependent on US aid-think tank-academic complex, as I have emphasized - see here and here - drains over a trillion dollars a year which could be used to prevent climate change, educate people, provide health care and many other matters. It has spawned 1280 military bases abroad (no other power has more than 5: the French in former French colonies in North Africa) - tends to make the military and militarism off-limits even for observation, let alone critical observation. It creates the underpinning of government surveillance - largely now privatized as are the soldiers on which the military depends, 7 in Afghanistan work for Blackwater/Xe corporations and the like for every 3 regular soldiers, and even, increasingly the "intelligence" services).

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The power of large banks and corporations, inside or outside of this group, has expanded enormously. Saskia underlines a kind of awful financial globalism:

"At its most extreme, this combination of massive surveillance and savage inequality may be signalling a new phase in the long history of liberal democracies, one where the executive branch gains power partly through its increasingly international activities. Over the last 20 years and more, this incipient internationalism has been deployed in support of developing a global economy and fighting the "War against Terrorism"; thus the big-bank bailout is not so much a "return of the strong nationalist state" as some would have it, but rather the use by the executive branch of national law and national taxpayers' money to rescue a global financial system."

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In addition, as the Senate fiasco about minimal gun checks revealed - take note of the complete lack of decency and obsequiousness to the NRA of Democratic Senators Udall and Bennett from Colorado - even mainly national capitalist institutions often frustrate plain and uncontroversial moral standards (i.e. it is bad to murder 20 six year olds and their teachers...) and democracy.

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In this imperial setting, it is comparatively easy for ordinary monarchical power - "to waste the lives of subjects in the pleasure party of war" as Kant says - to reassert itself as executive power. This is the decision of one, unbridled by legislative or judicial oversight.

This tyrannical power was strengthened in the Bush administration, and is becoming consolidated even in the more cautious and less wantonly murderous or torturing Obama administration. The Schmitt/Strauss theme song is today echoed by reactionaries like Bill Kristol (who has little grasp that Strauss was once pro-Nazi) and the Democratic neo-neo cons, the ones who need to cry for war and drones to get face-time on television (Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, questioning why he had believed the lies about Iraq and repeated them on television, offered this explanation) and to be seen as "tough" in foreign policy.

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There are thus special circumstances or, once again, a dialectic in the interplay of Leo Strauss/neo-con commander in chief power and the war complex. This dialectic even sweeps up the Obama administration because of his immoral and counterproductive incinerating of civilians with drones. Ideas and interests interact. The latter shapes the former; the former sanctifies the latter.

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Obama took out Bin Laden in Pakistan without using drones. There was, in fact, no purpose to surging in Afghanistan (this was the result of pressure from generals and the Democratic neo-neo cons; Obama took a 6 week time out to try to figure out some other course, Biden argued against the surge...) and there is today no need for the widespread immoral and counterproductive (it makes ordinary people hate the US, the Company in "Avatar" far away) drone killing of civilians.

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That Obama is a constitutional lawyer and a teacher of constitutional law is a sad commentary on his Presidency.

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"Al-Jazeera
Saskia Sassen
Saskia Sassen is Robert S Lynd professor of sociology, and co-chairs the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University.

Drones over there, total surveillance over here
The massive surveillance system built up over the last 10 years is the domestic companion of overseas drone killings.
Last Modified: 19 Feb 2013

(the program would not reproduce the photo - see here).

There are at least 10,000 buildings across the US, with a massive concentration in Washington, DC, engaged in ongoing surveillance of all residing in the territory of the US [AP]

The big story buried in all the commentary about the US government's drone policy is that the old algorithm of the liberal state no longer works. Focusing on drones is almost a distraction, if it weren't for the number of men, women and children they have killed in only a few years. What we should focus on is the deeper condition that enables the drone policy, and so much more, and that is the sharp increase in unaccountable executive power, no matter what party is in power.

The 1960s and the 1970s saw the making of laws that called for the executive branch of government to be more responsive to basic principles of a division of power and accountability to citizens. Many of its owners were curtailed by the legislative. With Reagan, Clinton and especially Bush-Cheney, many of these laws were violated under the claim of a state of exception due to the "War on Terror".

What we are facing is a profound degradation of the liberal state. Drone killings and unlawful imprisonment are at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and the rise of the power, economic destructions and unaccountability of the financial sector are at the other end.

The massive surveillance apparatus built up over the last 10 years is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It is one outcome of this deep decay of the liberal state. While much is not known about either, we know enough to recognise its potential for enormous abuse. What is known is that there are at least 10,000 buildings across the US, with a massive concentration in Washington, DC, engaged in ongoing surveillance of all of us residing in the territory of the US. Surveillance and counter-terrorism activities employ about one million professionals with top level secret clearance. One estimate has it that every day over two billion emails are tracked. And on and on along these lines.

The basic logic of such a surveillance system is that for our security as citizens we are all being surveilled, or potentially so. That is to say, the logic of the system is that we must all be considered suspect in a first step in order to ensure our safety. Who, then, have we the citizens become, or turned into? Are we the new colonials?

The source of this excess of executive power is a foundational distortion at the heart of the liberal state. The liberal state was never meant to bring equality of opportunity and full recognition of all members of the polity. Inequality was at its core since its beginning - between owners of the means of production and those who only had their labour to sell in the market. But even so, the so-called Keynesian period throughout much of the west engendered a prosperous working class and an expanding modest middle class. It was a partial democratising of the economy. In the 1980s, this began to disintegrate.

In the 2000s, just about all liberal democracies were in sharp decline, with growing inequality, weakened unions, impoverishment of the modest middle classes, and an enormous capture of the country's profits by the top layer of firms and households. This is all captured in a couple of numbers found in the US census: In 1979, the top 1 percent of earners in New York City received 12 percent of all the compensation to workers in the city, a reasonable level of inequality in a complex economy such as is NYC. (This share excludes non-compensation sources of wealth, such as capital gains, inheritance, etc.) In 2009, the top 1 percent received 44 percent - a level of inequality that cannot be good for the city's economy.

At its most extreme, this combination of massive surveillance and savage inequality may be signalling a new phase in the long history of liberal democracies, one where the executive branch gains power partly through its increasingly international activities. Over the last 20 years and more, this incipient internationalism has been deployed in support of developing a global economy and fighting the "War against Terrorism"; thus the big-bank bailout is not so much a "return of the strong nationalist state" as some would have it, but rather the use by the executive branch of national law and national taxpayers' money to rescue a global financial system.

This is a kind of internationalism. Pity it is being deployed for this. It is possible that these new international capabilities of the executive branch might be reoriented to more worthy aims - climate change, global hunger, global poverty and many others requiring new types of internationalisms.

Saskia Sassen is Robert S Lynd professor of sociology, and co-chairs the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. She is the author of Cities in a World Economy; Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages; A Sociology of Globalization (Contemporary Society Series) and others.

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